Breathing is an essential and passive bodily function that keeps the oxygen pumping and our minds functioning. Yet our breathing habits and techniques have been shown to play an important role in how we react to internal and external stimuli and perhaps deserve more attention than typically given.
Harmful Effects of Improper Breathing
Most people have dealt with some form of stress, anxiety or pain at some point in their lives and will be able to tell you that their breath is a direct reflection of emotions and has a tendency to amplify the situation. Anxiety or stress causes the muscles that help you to breathe to tense and tighten, making your breath more rapid and shallow which reduces oxygen levels in the blood. The tensed muscles begin to tire and a downwards spiral is initiated where breath again becomes shorter and more rapid and oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart then begins to race and the stress signals are sent to the brain. This is how panicking leads to hyperventilation and how improper breathing can exacerbate anxiety, fatigue, stress and panic.
How Breathing Exercises Can Help
Breathing exercises are a simple yet effective way to combat the amplifying effects of improper breathing. They have been used for thousands of years and are known to help with reducing stress, anxiety and even pain. Controlled breathing and breathing exercises are some of the key building blocks of ancient practices like mindful meditation and yoga, and have even been linked to spirituality and enlightenment. Scientifically, the constant and gentle rise and fall of controlled breathing triggers the brain into creating a calm and tranquil state of mind which trickles down to the body. Hormones associated with relaxation are released and they course through the body and counteract the effects of improper, stress-related breathing eventually causing you to feel genuinely soothed.
Breathing Exercise for Reducing Stress
Breathing exercises are generally simple and can be attempted by everyone. Have a go with this easy guide:
- Find a comfortable position lying down with a pillow under your head and your eyes closed.
- Place both hands on your stomach and focus on how they rise and fall as you breathe slowly and deeply.
- Notice your breath as it moves in and out of your body and submit to the fluid rhythms it creates.
- Continue until you feel your heartbeat slow down and your thoughts become clearer.
Concentrating on Your Breathing
It’s important to be able to identify the differences in your breathing. Essentially, there are two types of breathing: diaphragmatic and thoracic. Diaphragmatic breathing is deep, even and ideally responsible for the majority of breath intake. It invokes the abdominal muscles along with the big and powerful muscles of the diaphragm. Thoracic breathing is also known as chest breathing and is supposed to be responsible for only 20% of breath intake. It uses muscled in the neck, shoulders and ribs. Sitting in one position, particularly if slumped, interferes with the natural motions needed for diaphragmatic breathing and causes us to breathe incorrectly. This is also what happens when the abdominal muscles tense up in response to anxiety or stress. The tightened big and powerful muscles are prevented from working efficiently and the upper muscles associated with thoracic breathing have to take over. As these muscles are only intended to do a fraction of the work, they become stressed which can lead to headaches, fatigue and breathing problems.
Breath Mindfulness Exercise
Doing breath-based meditation like this simple exercise can counteract these effects:
1. Be Comfortable
Sit upright without straining on a high-backed chair or on a cushion on the floor with hands resting in your lap and eyes closed.
2. Focus on your breath
Feel the sensations of where your breath rests within your body. Relax with the natural flow as it moves in and out.
3. Refocus the mind
When you notice your mind wandering, gently refocus your attention on breathing.
It’s okay to get lost in thought now and then but once you notice, return to the breath.
4. Do this for at least 5 minutes
Stay in silence until you feel relaxed and peaceful. Meditation has the power to make you feel clear-minded, collected and energized.
Breathing exercises are a great way to combat the effects of anxiety and stress. Practicing these exercises will give you the tools to control your breathing, increase mindfulness and gain mental clarity. You can start your journey to a more controlled and peaceful state of mind with a single breath.